“Even breathing hurts me.” Poor Louis (José Garcia). Despondent after being dumped by his now much idealized girlfriend Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain), he feels the loss every waking moment. You know his pain must be real because he first appears in Après Vous as he’s about to hang himself from a tree. Glugging wine from a bottle, he gathers his strength, then pushes off from the suitcase he’s brought along to stand on. And then, he’s dangling.
In that instant, Louis’ life changes. Spotted by Antoine (Daniel Auteuil), Louis soon finds himself tackled, embraced, then cut down from his limb, toppled onto his rescuer and then laid out on the grass, face turned up to the peaceful night sky. As they lie side by side, panting, Antoine’s cell phone goes off. It’s his girlfriend Christine (Maryline Canto), wondering why he’s late for their dinner date. “I can’t talk right now,” he mutters into the phone, his head turned ineffectively away from Louis. “Have an aperitif.” But Antoine’s inability to explain to Christine what he’s doing is linked to his inability to say no to Louis. From this moment on, their fates are joined.
Antoine brings Louis home with him, passing him off as a cousin so Christine won’t rightly wonder why he’s invited this complete stranger to their table. When the still stunned Louis gazes off into a distance and takes a brief, awkward walk around the room, Antoine abandons his conversation with Christine to follow him, then picks up where he left off when they return to their seats — already, their attachment looks unnerving. Louis’ affect shifts from dazed to desperate to manipulative in a matter of minutes, with Antoine apparently so eager to find a distraction from Christine that he’s ready to save his new friend from any minor catastrophe that presents itself.
And so, when Louis remembers that he’s sent a suicide letter to his grandparents, the guys immediately hit the road to intercept the missive. When Christine wonders at the sudden impulse to get Louis out of Paris (“He isn’t your cousin”), Antoine must give up just a little bit of the truth: “I don’t even know his name.” The visit with grandma (Andrée Tainsy) only seems to exacerbate the men’s mutual penchant for deceit and apparent distrust of women. Following a comic scene where Antoine “reads” Louis’ letter for the nearly blind, 87-year-old woman (instead of reading “I can’t go on,” he substitutes happy talk, like “I have lots of great friends”), she confesses that she was the one who advised Louis’ ex to dump him. “Lord, I was worried afterwards,” she sighs, “I thought I’d gone too far.” Louis, hidden in the backseat of the car as she makes this confession, is apoplectic, and the film cuts to grandma’s doddering exit from the car, the words “Bloody Bitch” painted on her coat.
While this moment is situated as comedy, it also underlines the dishonesty and vague perversity (bordering on misogyny) at the center of Louis and Antoine’s evolving symbiosis. As different as they might seem — Antoine efficient and employed, Louis floundering and fretful — Après Vous is more interested in their similarities, their obsessive and scheming natures, a similarity revealed in a particularly delicate dance in relation to Louis’ ex, the willowy, curiously passive Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain).
After learning that Blanche is a rather monumental figure in Louis’ memory (“The woman of my life, the air that I breathed”), Antoine tracks her down at the flower shop where she works, in the interest of bringing Louis “back into society” (he also gets him a job as a sommelier at the restaurant where he works, though Louis plainly knows little about wines, except that he’s fond of drinking them). But even as he goes about the business of breaking up her current relationship with the womanizing André (Fabio Zenoni), Antoine begins to fall for Blanche himself. As Antoine doesn’t tell Blanche that he knows Louis or Louis that he’s found Blanche (and lies to Christine about all of it, pretending he’s off to meet with clients whenever he has a pressing interaction with Blanche), he’s soon entangled in a network of fabrications of the French farcical sort.
While none of these pretenses is quite believable, the affable Auteuil makes it watchable, scene to scene. He develops an affinity with Blanche, in part based in their shared exasperation with Louis; when she announces, “Louis was a living emotion, a real storm, you have no idea,” a cut to Antoine shows that he has every idea, but won’t dare let on. Instead, he persists in lying and observing, unable to act, unable to make a commitment, unable to admit his likeness to Louis. In an effort to convince Antoine to let go of his attachment to Louis, Christine notes that in fact, he has no responsibility, just because he’s saved his life. Louis, she notes, is suffering a “narcissistic injury,” bringing pain on himself by not admitting the truth, that he’s difficult, angry, and needy.
As the men work up their nerves to do something, the women are left waiting. Just as Christine lingers in hopes that Antoine will at last propose marriage, Blanche is all too willing to put up with André’s cheating because, she sighs, “I hate the idea of being alone.” When Antoine protests, imagining that she embodies an ideal he desires, she explains her timidity in lilting, stereotypical terms: “My trouble is that I always sense the beautiful thing about someone, and afterwards, that’s all I see.” But there’s another story here, about the lies they can’t seem to stop telling. While they might eventually reveal the tricks they’ve all been running on one another, Après Vous offers no indication that they will ever be honest with themselves.